by Nancy Van Pelt

Ellen and Levi met, fell in love, got married, and had three children. But on their way to building a family, their marriage started to fray at the seams. Their dreams got lost somewhere between starry-eyed illusions and the stark reality of rearing children. What this real-life couple discovered was that babies can be a real workout for the parents’ relationship. The humdrum details of demestic life become emotional land mines.

Frequently parents become so involved in their children’s lives that they forget to make their marriage a priority. If this pattern continues, their children become the only glue that holds them together. A couple usually do not realize that they have put their marriage on hold. It begins with a subtle shifting of priorities and often continues unrecognized until the children are older. Midlife markers such as a 40th birthday or a high school graduation become rude awakeners. Once children are launched, these partners look at each other and wonder about the stranger who sits across the breakfast table.

It’s not easy to keep a marriage on track romantically. Lori explains it this way: “I was shocked, after we went on a vacation to celebrate our 10th anniversary, to realize it had been seven years since we’d had more than a weekend away together. I wasn’t holding a grudge about never having a vacation, but it was heavenly to be able to do what we wanted, when we wanted, where we wanted, without children. It was like wearing a beeper for nine years and suddenly taking it off and leaving it somewhere for a whole week. I was so free! I never relaxed that much at home. It was like our honeymoon before we had kids.”

After we’ve been married awhile, the tendency is to give work and children our freshest energy. Marriage gets what’s left over. But if a couple is going to maintain a healthy marriage over the long haul, romance and fun activities must become part of the delicate balancing act. Without taking time for this, patience with each other wears thin.

As the second law of thermodynamics notes: “Everything left unattended will tend toward disorder.” Living in the same house, practicing the same faith, parenting the same children, sharing the same bed, isn’t enough anymore.

Note that the couples mentioned were not considering divorce. They probably had a better relationship than many. But they weren’t happy. Being married was not satisfying to them. This happens in many marriages. Newlyweds become disenchanted with married life when their marriage is no longer like television sitcoms with a happy ending in 30 minutes. Routine, sameness, boredom, and child-centeredness settle in. Such couples stand perched on the brink of what might be termed “marital burnout.”

Marital burnout is a state of complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion in marriage. It afflicts those who expect marriage to give meaning to life and finally relaize that, in spite of all their efforts, their marriage isn’t providing what they want.

Marital burnout doesn’t happen overnight. Instead it’s a gradual process, a growing awareness that things are no longer as good as they once were, that one’s spouse is not as exciting as he or she once was.

Keeping Romance Alive

So, how can a couple prevent marriage burnout? Here are some tips:

* Try a 20-second recharge. Kiss each other for at least 20 seconds two times a day, rather than the usual pecks on the lips or cheek.

*Tape a note to the mirror that reads, “Hello, Favorite Person. You are looking at the person I love will all my heart.

*Prepare a homemade booklet of coupons that your partner can redeem at will. The coupons might say “This entitles you to two hours of my undivided attention.”

*When you know your partner has had a really tough day, give him/her an all-over soothing massage.

*Write out a list of all the things you love about your partner. Seal the list in an envelope and leave it on his/her pillow.

*When your mate enters a room, do a full body turn and let out a long, low whistle.

* Invite your partner to a hug party. Call yourself a hug therapist who gives great hugs, and tell him/her it wouldn’t be a party without him/her.

*Move your kids’ bedtime up by 30 minutes and spend the extra time with your mate. The kids may complain, but stand your ground.

*Every day, grab five or 10 minutes when you can touch base with each other. For example, share a glass of milk before the kids get up in the morning.

*Turn the television off and lie in bed in each other’s arm talking until you fall asleep.

*Call your mate in the middle of the afternoon, just to touch base.

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This article is excerpted from Highly Effective Marriage by Nancy Van Pelt.

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